Novel Experiment · writing

An Error in Writing


I made a terrible, unholy error last week; I reread a few of my favorite authors. This doesn’t seem like it would be a problem – writers read all of the time, don’t they? – but I started to read my Russian standbys: Chekhov, Bulgakov, Turgenev. And then everything went wrong.

When I write, I have a strong voice, move action along well enough, use clear prose, but if I read my writing next to the works authors who are masters at their craft, I begin to feel very small.

Take, for example, this excerpt about the character of Anna Odintsova from Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862):

Sometimes upon emerging from a fragrant bath, all warm and soft, she’d fall to musing about the insignificance of life, its sadness, travail, and evil…Her soul would be filled with unexpected boldness and seethe with noble aspiration; but a draught of wind would blow from a half-opened window and Anna Sergeevna would retreat into herself, complain, and feel almost angry; the only thing she needed at that moment was for that nasty wind to stop blowing on her.

In a single paragraph, Turgenev distills the character of Anna. The reader gets a sense of her melancholy, her potential, and her nearly violent need to stay safe and comfortable. I cannot so simply extract the core of my characters, certainly not in a first draft.

This knowledge has stalked me over the past several days. I’ve continued to write, to meet my word counts, but I can see the beast of that constant knowing out of the corner of my eye.

At this point, I have to ignore it. I can worry more about my descriptions, my use of language during the next round of revisions. But before I can do that, I need to have written words to revise.

So I keep writing. And then I write again.


*Image Attribution: Young Russian Woman (c. 1756-1762) by Pietro Rotari


17 thoughts on “An Error in Writing

  1. Oh no! 🙂 Kristen, I often feel this way about those wonder writers who have come before me. Prose, I’ll never be able to capture. It’s disheartening. I remember an interview just recently by a popular artist who said she never reads other authors work while she writing, otherwise, she abandoned her entire novel. Yes, you can admire other others, but embrace your own unique style. 🙂

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  2. There’s being humbled by our heroes and there’s being inspired by them. That can happen simultaneously or separately, just so long as both happen. So . . . cut yourself some slack, take that positive energy and harness it within your own writing. If I’m reading while writing that’s exactly what I’m in search of, a positive catalyst to put forward wind in my sails. Hopefully you can do that too. That way it’s not a ‘mistake’ 🙂

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  3. I completely understand the angst of drafting and comparison. I have to keep reading as I write, but I find I’m less “threatened” by other writers if what I’m reading is in a different genre than what I’m writing; less room for panic and more room for inspiration.

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  4. Don’t discount how much of you is in that passage – I thought Anna was annoying, and spoiled, not soulful. Which is not the point – the point is, what you see in others’ but not your work is the part the reader does. And each reader does it differently, and some readers don’t mesh with some authors. It’s quite possible your ideal audience hates Turgenev! You write your work. Have faith a reader will get it.

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  5. In writing it’s really hard to stay in your own lane because drawing inspiration from other art forms is inevitable – art generates art. In the end, though, when you have a finished product that you yourself might not consider to be as great of a masterpiece as something Turgenev would come up with, you end up finding art in the imperfections of your writing – the things that make it different from anything anyone else has ever written. And that makes any feeling of inferiority along the way worth it for me.

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